THE WITCH (2016, Robert Eggers)
[Some spoilers below, so beware]
Frustratingly close to being a great movie, THE WITCH can’t quite summon the depth to match its compelling content. No surprise to learn that Eggers is an art director, costume designer, and production designer — the work in those categories here is tremendous. Not only the supposedly-accurate period research (I say “supposedly” because I wasn’t actually alive in the 17th century, despite my aging body), but also the crisp look of the film, from the photography down to the harmony between the locations, actors, and effects. This is one cool-looking piece of work.
And for a while, it’s very provocative. Here’s a look at a family of Pilgrims, banished from town into nature, where they set up a farm and try to survive on the land. But of course they run into some trouble in the form of a supernatural force in the woods, which slowly tears the family apart. Eggers makes sure to show us how the unraveling is the result of a series of lies, withholdings, disloyalties, and harsh blame. The witch(es?) may only be the impetus: it’s human nature that’s the real problem.
And I probably would have liked it if the movie didn’t even have anything supernatural in it: if it were just a story about a family who suffers from their own tragic flaws, it would be pretty great. But I’m not criticizing this film for being something other than what I wanted. For me to tackle the movie Eggers actually made, I need to look at the reason for the witchcraft in play. And while you can make plenty of arguments that witches represent the only alternative for women in a society that represses them, there isn’t enough justification in the text. While Caleb is fascinated by his sister’s burgeoning womanhood, Thomasin herself never displays any endangered sexuality, only a desire not to be sold off by her parents in town. So that metaphor is half-baked. And the tacked-on ending (how great would it have been to end with her head on the table?) could be read as a happy one (now she’s liberated; better to be a demon than a Calvinist), but it’s ridiculous in practice, especially the shots of C-grade theater people writhing around a fire like in a bad musical. Also, if Eggers is criticizing religious zealotry for putting this family in the predicament in which they find themselves, why let them off the hook by justifying their paranoia? However, despite the ultimate failings of the material, THE WITCH is put together well enough that I will be in the front of the line for Eggers’s next project.